Biblical or Classical Hebrew is the ancient form of the Hebrew language, in which the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) was written, and which the ancient Israelites spoke. It is not spoken in its pure form today, although it is studied both by religious Jews and by Christian theologians and academics for practical application and deeper understanding in their studies of the Torah and its commentaries. Jews usually learn it when studying ancient scriptures. It is also studied by linguistic scholars and historians.
Modern evolutions of Classical Hebrew are in active use today, mostly in the form of various modern Jewish dialects of Hebrew, as well as the Samaritan Hebrew language, which is used primarily by the Samaritans.
From a linguistic point of view, the Classical Hebrew language is usually divided into two periods having very distinct grammatical patterns: Biblical Hebrew and Roman Era Hebrew.
Biblical Hebrew is further divided into the so-called 'Golden Age' Hebrew (1200 BC to 500 BC) and 'Silver Age' Hebrew (500 BC to 60 BC). Silver Age Hebrew has many borrowings from Aramaic, for example the use of the conditional particle illu replacing l?.
Roman Era Hebrew, or Mishnaic Hebrew, has further grammatical influences from Greek and Parsi, mainly through the dialect of Aramaic which was the lingua franca of the area at the time.
The earliest that linguists have been able to date the emergence of Ancient Hebrew is around the 12th century B.C. Its Aramean roots are clear, even though many linguists attempt to place it with Canaanite languages, rejecting the biblical record on shaky evidence.
Abraham and all his tribe were Aramean by descent and thus spoke an Aramean Semitic language. Because of their time in Mesopotamia, however, Akkadian had the opportunity to influence their tongue. After leaving that country, Abraham and his descendants spent a great deal of time in Canaan, still maintaining their language, although there is every indication that certain Canaanite accents were incorporated into the language. It was when the Israelites, i.e. Jacob and his descendants, moved to Egypt and lived there for over 400 years, that their language started to take its own form. It was in Egypt that the finer points of the Hebrew language began to take shape, preparing the way for a developed writing system.
Please note that one ought to read this alphabet (or 'alephbet') from top to bottom and from right to left. Thus the first letter is 'aleph' the second, 'beyt', etc.
Scholars and linguists believe that the written form of Ancient Hebrew did not originally include vowels, but was written with consonants alone. This would have made for a rather difficult reading as time went on and at some point after their separation from Edom, Moab, and Ammon, the Israelites began to use what is known as matres lectionis, which is a system peculiar to Ancient Hebrew. This scheme used three different characters to indicate the presence of a vowel before the next consonant.
Tanakh (also Tanach or Tenach) is an acronym that identifies the Hebrew Bible. The acronym is based on the initial Hebrew letters of each of the text's three parts:
- Torah meaning one or all of: "The Law"; "Teaching"; "Instruction." Also called the Chumash meaning: "The five"; "The five books of Moses." This is the first five books, frequently to as the "Pentateuch."
- Nevi'im meaning: "Prophets." These are the books of prophecy, not including Lamentations.
- Ketuvim meaning "Writings" or "Hagiographa." This included the books of poetry and historical books.
The books are ordered as above, which differs greatly from the ordering used in the Christian Bible; most notably the Christian Bible places the writings second and the prophets last.
Frequently the entire Old Testament was referred to as the "Torah" or the "Law" (see Psalm 1:2; John 10:34). In modern times the term "Torah" may also include books of Jewish tradition such as the Mishna and Talmud.
Together the Jewish books of the Law, Prophets, and Writings comprise the Masoretic text (MT), the Hebrew text of the Scriptures approved for general use in Judaism. This also corresponds to the books contained in the Christian Old Testament.
- Karl Elliger and Willhelm Rudolph, eds. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Hendrickson, 2006. ISBN 1598561634
- JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Student Edition. Jewish Publication Society of America, 2000. ISBN 0827606974
- A. Philip Brown II and Bryan W. Smith, eds. A Reader's Hebrew Bible. Zondervan, 2008. ISBN 0310269741
- Biblical Hebrew language
- The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition. Danbury, CT: Grolier, Inc. © 2001
- Bravmann, M.M. Studies in Semitic Philology. Leiden: E.J. Brill. ©1977
- Huehnergard, John. “Proto-Semitic and Culture.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. © 2000.
- "Afroasiatic languages: The Semitic Languages." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.
© 1994, 2000-2005, on Infoplease. © 2000–2005 Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease. 02/18/2005.
- Biblical Hebrew Grammar Tutorials
- Biblical Hebrew and Greek Resources (includes vocabulary study guides)
- A Hebrew - English Bible According to the Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition (MP3s)
- Hebrew Glossary: Words Occurring over 100 Times: Full-page version, Double-sided booklet, by Philip Brown